Best Laid Plans

If you do not believe in the workings of a thing called fate (which can be tempted), I suggest you figure out a watertight plan and then see what happens to it. Yes, last Sunday’s grand designs rather fell apart this week as both Mr Litlove and I suffered physical setbacks. In all fairness, we had already suffered them when I was typing my last post but we didn’t realise how much trouble they would cause.

The previous week, Mr Litlove had pinched a nerve lifting weights at the gym but he hadn’t thought too much about it and continued as normal. That Sunday morning he had gone out on the river for rowing races, and after a long, cold sit in the damp at the bottom of the reach, he had really hurt himself during the race. The previous week, I had written half of an article on Nobel prize winner, Patrick Modiano, for the lovely Numero Cinq magazine, and then, although I was a little tired on the Saturday, I had gone out to tea with some friends. On Sunday morning I woke with a cold sore and a strangely bloodshot eye. Funnily enough, the same thing had happened to the same eye just after Christmas, but it had calmed down okay on that occasion. I wasn’t really worried, but I made an appointment with my optician just to be reassured, I’d hoped.

It was Mr Litlove who was really suffering. He couldn’t find any position that was comfortable for long and was just hanging on in there until his Tuesday lunchtime appointment with the physio. Tuesday morning we went our separate ways. I knew I was in trouble when the optician started being very kind to me and taking photos of my eyeball. I had inflammatory cells in my eye – they show as just a small white line within the circumference of my iris – and he didn’t understand why. He was going to refer me but after checking with a colleague decided to monitor me instead. The problem wasn’t with my eyesight, but with my health. ‘You must be run down,’ he said. I protested that I couldn’t possibly be as I hadn’t done anything. ‘You’ve got that,’ he said, pointing at my cold sore. ‘And you wouldn’t have it if you weren’t run down.’ I thought I might as well tackle the worst. ‘It’s not that you suspect a brain tumour but don’t want to tell me?’ I asked him. He laughed and said no. ‘You’re just… interesting… at the moment,’ he said. ‘Think of it like that.’

Interesting was what I’d hoped to be about Patrick Modiano; this was very much the wrong kind of interesting. The fact it was so small but obviously a problem was bothering me too. I felt like I’d maybe got a layer of semtex in my brain and this was the first tiny harbinger. I got home and started looking things up on the internet. It was an autoimmune issue, the sensible and accredited website told me. It could indicate – in rare cases – awful things, or something common like arthritis, and it was also a symptom of the herpes virus. I stopped reading there. I thought that would suffice as an explanation, but the situation had triggered my anxiety and I was having a hard time getting it back under control. Then Mr Litlove came in, having been put on the rack by the physio, and he was in awful pain. Somehow we staggered through the day; me nursing an urgent anxiety, him nursing his agonised shoulder. That night neither of us could sleep. I found myself downstairs at 3.30 am nibbling at a (somewhat stale) oatcake to combat the nausea of fatigue, anxiety and low blood sugar while Mr Litlove thrashed about upstairs trying to find a way to lie down that wasn’t painful. At one point, he told me the next morning, he had knelt on the mattress and put his head face down on the pillow, like he was praying to Mecca, and he’d actually lost some time that way; he must have dropped off, that most awkward position being the most comfortable he’d found.

Well, things have improved since then. The optician rang me to say he had done some research and was sure my eye problem was a symptom of chronic fatigue. This was good news in that I could remain with only one big health issue; but it was frustrating how little I’d done to bring it on, after all those autumn months of rest. Mr Litlove managed to get his special painkillers from the doctors and they helped, as did a period of prolonged inactivity. He is moving much easier now, and my eye looks a lot better, just a ghost of a mark that only someone searching obsessively could see.

A couple of days ago we went to do our supermarket trip together, thinking to prop each other up. It was as well I was there as Mr Litlove was quite quickly in pain again (standing, he was only comfortable with his hands on his head, as if he were being taken into police custody); we shopped quickly and came home. It is strange for me to watch Mr Litlove when he is ill. It reminds me that my own cluster of anxieties are not from cowardice or feebleness as I so often fear, but from the experience of chronic illness. ‘Think about how you felt today,’ I urged him, ‘and you can see how I might feel, when every time I go out, I run the risk of feeling bad. If this dragged on for months and years, do you understand how you might come to feel limited? How you might worry about doing anything?’ Chronic fatigue can be a lonely business sometimes, and I so wanted him just to hold this moment and understand, but he only smiled at me as sympathetically as he could, and I knew he didn’t see it at all.

AdamSmithThe real casualty of the past week has been our creative projects. They sit abandoned again. But what kept coming back to my mind was a brilliant book I finished shortly after Christmas, Katrine Marcal’s Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? In it she argues persuasively against the existence of ‘economic man’, the model citizen for all model-based economics. For economic man, everything is a choice; he is rational, selfish, motivated by greed, has little in the way of ethics and wants only to be as rich as possible. He is a ‘bodiless, sexless, profit-seeking individual without family or context.’ So no one resembles economic man, apart from bankers and a few under-5’s, Marcal argues. Back in the 1930s, Maynard Keynes thought that economic man modelled the way we would have to behave for a while, to get past the great depressions of that era, but that once we’d eradicated poverty, we could give up such unnatural behaviour and return to loving art, working and earning less, and spending time with those we loved. What happened instead was Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Regan and neo-liberalism. With the result that, although people do not naturally resemble economic man, this ideology reorganised society in order to force us all to behave like him. The market became all-important, the way we understood and arranged all our interactions – even those like healthcare and education, that were in radical opposition to the way the market functions.

And then human beings became understood as ‘human capital’. Adam Smith first uses the term: ‘People’s education, skills, talents and competencies can, according to Smith, be seen as a form of capital.’ We can be equated to machines, run like businesses, Marcal explains: ‘every person has been transformed into an entrepreneur in the business of selling themselves… Your life is your small business and the capital is, in this case, you.’ So we bear the full responsibility for the outcome of our lives, good or bad, and every decision we make – to do our coursework, to whiten our teeth, to buy a pair of shoes, becomes an investment that may or may not come off. If we think of ourselves as just a piece of human capital, rather than an individual, then we all become very equal, ridiculously equal. ‘The man who waits for his fake documents outside the airport at Dakar,’ Marcal writes is just ‘like the CEO who stretches his legs out in his aeroplane seat to catch a few hours’ sleep before his next meeting on the other side of eight hours in business class.’ The raw material is the same, neo-liberalism tells us: the CEO has just done better with his.

This is complete nonsense, of course, harmful, upsetting nonsense that confuses the kind of equality we need in society with the exact-sameness of two pieces of factory-produced machinery. And yet I was so struck when reading this that I do think this way when it comes to myself. I was a child of the Thatcher era, and I do think I should function just like any other person, that if I invest a certain amount of time in myself, I should be able to produce what I decide needs to be produced. Neo-liberalism changed what it means to be human, Marcal argues, and I do look at myself as an abstract proposition, not as a human who should put the body first because being human is about being in a body before it’s about anything else. Yet what I experience, over and over, is that this new idea of being human breaks down hopelessly when it comes to misfortune and to creativity. (Also when it comes to motherhood, but that’s a post for another day.) In other words, in matters that concern healthcare and education, the two most important institutions in human life to which the most wrong has been done by market-driven economics.

Except perhaps the idea of being human, which should never have been moved away from the immediacy of our lived reality. If Mr Litlove and I want to enjoy our very different life, if we want to create in a way that interests us (not just to pander to some commercial ideal that we care for not at all) because we want to live a simple life that is about a much deeper, richer sense of purpose than earning as much money as possible, we need to think about ourselves very differently too.

 

Learning The Hard Way

Why is it that the student-teacher relationship is such a potent and hypnotic one? Inevitably, this is something I’ve thought a lot about over the years, not least because of a strange sense I always had that teaching is easy. I loved the relationships I had with my students because teaching was the one place where I felt I knew exactly what was expected of me, and exactly what my students needed. Most relationships have an opaque quality, a nagging suspicion that we’re not sure of doing or saying the right thing, the necessary thing. But my students, I felt sure (and do correct me if I’ve been labouring under a delusion), just wanted to be seen, truthfully – though they preferred that truth to be palatable – and then guided kindly in the right direction. Because those things together, truth and guidance, are transformational. To be told by someone whose judgement  you trust that you are either okay, or on the path to being okay, breeds confidence, which is a properly magical quality. I’ve seen clever, able students completely crippled by a lack of confidence and students with ostensibly fewer abilities soar to amazing heights on its warm thermals. Confidence is mostly very hard won, but a few beings can confer it upon a person, and teachers are one of them.

So it’s unsurprising that the relationship between a teacher and a student can become unbalanced with all sorts of emotional messiness; truth and guidance can topple over into love and obsession, they can welter in hatred and resentment, they can breed cynicism or despair. No wonder then that it can make for some pretty fascinating pieces of fiction.

you deserve nothingAlexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing was an excellent novel. The story revolves around teacher-guru Will Silver, a young, handsome and brilliant professor of philosophy at an international school in Paris.  The story begins at the end of one summer term, as students say their heartfelt goodbyes to Mr Silver, thanking him for changing their lives, for opening their minds, and giving them experiences they will never forget. Graduation melts into a party at the grand flat of one of Mr Silver’s students, and he ends up going to the nightclub with a gaggle of teenagers. There he meets and dances with Marie, an encounter that spills over into unexpected eroticism, but he leaves it alone, no damage done.

The new school year begins and Mr Silver embarks on his voyage of discovery with a new group, that includes Gilead, a young man with troubled parents who is looking for a hero, Ariel, Marie’s best frenemy, Colin, Marie’s angry ex-boyfriend and Abdul, a Muslim boy with powerful parents. This gets awkward when the topic under discussion is Existentialism, a philosophical movement that denies the existence of God, and which the class debate with the gloves off. Before long, that dazzling ability of Mr Silver to open up students’ minds is finding disfavour with the school authorities, who believe it is incompatible with respect for less open-minded religions. And what they don’t know yet is that Marie has come back into Will Silver’s life.

The narrative swaps hands between Will, Marie and Gilead, with different perspectives often going back and forth over the same events, showing the difference in the way they have been experienced. The hothouse atmosphere of further education: adolescents exploring their sexuality and their intellects, crushed by disappointments, longing for stable role models, breaking away from family difficulties, is brilliantly portrayed. Paris makes a glorious, vibrant backdrop, and most enigmatic and mesmerising of all is Will Silver himself, a man aware of the power of his teaching, and the emptiness of his soul. This is a narrative that starts quiet but builds inexorably. If I had a criticism, it would be that the ending becomes obvious from three-quarters of the way through and happens without surprise. But it’s a quibble, really, about a very, very good book.

 

amber furyThe Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes shows what radical differences can be achieved by similar ingredients. Alex Morris is a theatre director fallen on hard times. A personal tragedy has destroyed her life, and she has come to Edinburgh out of hopelessness and helplessness. Her most beloved old university tutor now runs a Pupil Referral Unit for kids who have been kicked out of all the obvious schools. He has given her a job, filling in for a teacher who has left on maternity leave, and Alex has taken it with no real idea of what she is letting herself in for. Her class is a mere five students, but such troublesome and troubled ones that keeping control is out of the question. Alex is there to teach drama, and they end up reading Greek tragedies together. We know from the opening pages that somehow, this has ended in disaster.

Alex is another enigmatic teacher, but her secrets will form the basis of the story. The reader learns what they are in the same time frame as the students – one of whom, a deaf girl, Mel, has become exceedingly curious about their careworn, unhappy mentor. It’s Alex’s own vulnerability that has attracted Mel’s attention to her, and with very little else to occupy her mind, Mel is intent on discovering what has happened in Alex’s past. As she does so, the plots of the tragedies they are reading, and the meaning the class draws from them, become entangled with real events as they unfold.

This is a good book, well-written, but slightly marred for me by implausibilities. No way would any teaching establishment for difficult kids take on an inexperienced teacher like Alex, or stand for the haphazard way she runs her classes. Nor do troubled teens come out with impressive insights into Greek literature that they have no real interest in. I can see why Natalie Haynes makes these choices – her plot depends on them – and probably if you didn’t teach literature to students they wouldn’t mar your enjoyment of the book (and a story full of the accurate grunts and sighs of bored adolescents would be no fun to read). So. More generally, I was a bit fed up with all the slow reveals going on in the early sections – what happened in Alex’s past, what happens in her time at the unit – common thinking is that readers love this sort of suspense, and that it pulls them through the story, but I much preferred watching a situation build in the Maksik novel. Saying all of this makes it sound like I didn’t like The Amber Fury or that it isn’t a good book. And that would be wrong. I thought the ending of this novel was the best part of it, and that Haynes nailed it perfectly. The referral unit is vividly portrayed and the expositions on Greek literature are interesting. There’s a lot to enjoy.

 

indexFinally, I’ll mention The Lessons by Naomi Alderman, but this was a miss for me. It’s an Oxbridge-group-of-friends novel, split into two parts: the first describing their time at Oxford together, the second describing the fallout of their relationships in the world after graduation. The main protagonist is unhappy, struggling James. He’s followed older sister, Anne, to Oxford but is unable to emulate her glittering success. Instead, his physics tutorials are incomprehensible, the loneliness threatens to overwhelm him, and then, an accident leaves him with a painfully damaged knee. By chance, he falls in with a group of friends surrounding a wildly wealthy but unbalanced undergraduate, Mark. Mark lives in a huge, ramshackle pile and likes to throw dangerous parties. He has A Mother, the beautiful, much-married Isabelle, who sets a local priest on him to make sure he is keeping up his Catholicism. Mark cuts himself in mute protest. The priest nabs James and tries to turn him informer.

I confess I skim-read the second half, in which things go from bad to worse. This is another exquisitely written book, but somehow I wasn’t in the mood to read about screwed, self-destructive people screwing their lives up and destroying themselves. There’s a glimmer of hope maybe at the end, but I had to go through a lot of yelling ‘No! Don’t do it!’ at the book, while the characters went ahead and did it, before getting there. For me this was not really a bleak midwinter option, but you shouldn’t let that put you off if you like a bit of darkness and melancholy. The language and characterisation are both sharp and impressive.

So what do we learn from all of these? Well, that fictional teachers ought to be like doctors and have the same option of being struck off; that fictional schools are full of crazy students; that a little learning, particularly of literature, can be a dangerous thing. Does that sound more exciting than your school days? It was all a lot more dramatic than my teaching ones – thankfully.

 

Making Choices

On Friday I completed what I think will be my last survey for an online market research forum into contemporary books. When I first received the email inviting me to join, I liked the idea of filling in surveys about the books I bought and read. The reality has been surprising, however.

The vast majority of questionnaires have been about supermarket books, the most mass market romance and thrillers to which I don’t pay much attention. The most persistent questions concern the covers and the blurb, as well as the endorsements that feature there. I’m not sure whether I have ever convinced the shadowy forces behind these surveys that I really do not buy books for their covers. And certainly not supermarket books whose covers are far from innovative. Time and again the questions back me into a corner. Of three dull and ordinary covers, which one do I like the best? Reluctantly, I click. And what do I like most about this cover? (Please be as detailed as possible.) I struggle to find a polite way to say: absolutely nothing, but I prefer it to the other two, which I sincerely hate. The survey presses on. Which one of these blurbs makes me most interested in reading the book? Where is the option to say I am not interested in reading this book at all, regardless of blurb or endorsement or cover? In the eighteen months or so that I’ve been responding to these questions, there have only been two surveys about literary books, one of which was about repackaging modern classics for book clubs. The rest of the time I’ve been doing what I thought was impossible – responding to questions about books in which I actually have no interest. It’s not even that I wouldn’t buy a supermarket book from time to time; it’s just that scrutiny of them reveals a sort of painful banality.

Yesterday, in the spirit of Bank Holiday spring cleaning, I decided I would finally tackle the great heap of academic books that came back from my university rooms and which have been lying for almost three years now under a throw. The hope was that they might have the vague appearance of a table, but they have never really looked like anything other than the corpse of my intellectual life. I’ve done a lot of book culling this year, and before storing what I wanted to keep in plastic containers in the loft, I knew I ought to make a serious attempt to reduce their number. When I first took the throw off it was like unveiling a time capsule, packed full of books I had completely forgotten about. I sat back on my heels, thinking how smart I would have been, had I managed to read all of them. The question now was how many to keep, which translated as: how smart did I think I would be in the future? There was an honest answer to that and an idealistic one. Which to choose?

It occurred to me that these two experiences concerned the books at the furthest ends of my reading spectrum. I’ve always really liked reading everything. I’ve never wanted to define myself by being the ‘type of person’ to read only one genre or another, high literature or low. I never wanted the possibility of a book foreclosed to me before I even knew what it was about. When I was a teenager in the 80s, I loved reading Jilly Cooper and Judith Krantz, Susan Howatch and the sort of family saga that reached a zenith with Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles at the start of the 90s. After that, there was a great phase of witty, sharply observed women’s writing, by authors like Kathy Lette, Anna Maxted, Victoria Clayton and Caro Fraser. All the time I was reading these books, I was studying Beauvoir and Proust, Camus and Sartre, Colette and Duras, Hermann Hesse, Kafka, Goethe, Barthes, Freud, Lacan, Nietzsche, Derrida. Why not? As the new millenium approached, I spent an hour a night reading children’s literature to my son and loving that, too. The more the merrier. I loved the feeling of imaginative expansion, all these ways of seeing, all these approaches to storytelling.

But in the past few years something has definitely changed. I suppose it is probably me. I decided with great reluctance to give away the pristine, untouched books I owned by Deleuze and Guattari, philosophers I barely understood when I was at the height of my intellectual curiosity. And I have to say that I don’t like a lot of the mass market fiction that’s currently being written. The Girl on the Train was its epitome (or nadir?) for me – a narcissistic narrator, a silly, overly sensational plot and badly written. It’s that flat, first person present tense narration that I truly hate, all cliché and ultra-conventional emotions laid out as if they were insightful. I find myself much more drawn towards Dorothy Whipple, Angela Thirkell and Barbara Pym for my essential comfort reading, as all three can turn an exquisite and characterful sentence.

In one way it’s sensible to focus in on the authors that I appreciate the most. However much I want to read everything, I don’t have the time for it. And I seem less able to tolerate the styles of writing that displease me; I’m more critical than I used to be, and I’m not at all convinced it’s a good thing. I’ve never thought that the greatest powers of discernment when it came to books had anything to do with value judgement. Instead, I valued elasticity, the ability to look at any book on its own terms, and engage with what it was doing and how it was doing it. But my tastes are narrowing. However much I don’t want to make choices in my reading life, I seem to be making them anyway.

Maybe for that reason, I found I couldn’t give away many of my academic books. Instead I sorted them into different areas of criticism and theory, packed them into storage containers and let Mr Litlove struggle under their vast weight to the loft. In all honesty, I’m not getting any smarter. But I decided I’d keep the hope that one day, it might happen.

 

 

 

 

Dangerous Ambition

theblazingworldI’ve been wondering whether to ditch the idea of reviewing Siri Hustvedt’s novel, The Blazing World. Not because I didn’t enjoy it or admire it – I did both. But because it somehow seemed difficult to write about. Briefly, the novel concerns neglected artist, Harriet Burden, a woman of great ambition, great intelligence and fierce drive, whose work has been repeatedly overlooked and dismissed by the critics. It is structured as a posthumous collection of disparate writings by and about Burden that trace the development of her life and her last, desperate attempts to prove gender bias by creating three spectacular shows of work that are fronted by men, masquerading as the real artist. This isn’t some pc-driven whine: in the novel it’s noted how many actual women artists were blatantly sidelined, receiving no real recognition until their seventies (Alice Neel, Louise Bourgeois) or their death (Eva Hesse, Joan Mitchell) or indeed not at all – like Lee Krasner who was only ever seen through the frame of her husband, Jackson Pollock. The art world does have a problem with women, preferring ‘their geniuses coy, cool, or drunk and fighting in the Cedar Bar, depending on the era.’

Harriet Burden is driven to the edge of her sanity by the lack of recognition her work has received, and her dangerous ploy, to create work that men agree to show, backfires in all sorts of ways. Her first chosen male artist, a newcomer to the scene, is hailed beatifically and then cannot deal with the fact that he is not the work’s creator. Her second, a gender-bending black man, is too close to the feminine to attract the serious attention of the art world, though Harriet enjoys their collaboration most of all. The last, an already-established rock star of the art world, pretentious Rune, betrays Harriet in the worst possible way. Harriet proves the sexism inherent in art criticism, but she is powerless to change anything, and remains deprived of the satisfaction she seeks.

I thought a lot about Harriet Burden while reading Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives by Anna Fels. Fels’ argument is that ambition is useful to us – ‘coping skills, understanding of reality and sense of self-worth’ are all higher in women who have defined plans for their futures. Women who want to be ‘upwardly mobile via their own achievements’ turn out to be ‘the most psychologically well adjusted.’ But recognition – accurate, meaningful praise from the external world – is consistently withheld from women, and white middle-class women in particular are the group most loathe to go after it. Ambition is understood to be pushy, aggressive, non-feminine. Women will repeatedly say that they have nothing against ambition, that they understand it can be useful, but will stubbornly stick only to ambitions that involve nurturing others.

What I found most intriguing about this book is its insistence on the value and importance of recognition. It’s a tragic myth women tell themselves to try to come to terms with their lot that it’s all about the work for its own sake, Fels suggests. ‘[T]he recognition of one’s skills within a community creates a sense of identity, personal worth, and social inclusion – base cornerstones in any life’. The times we receive recognition are usually iconic moments we remember forever more. ‘Recognition by others defines us to ourselves, energises us, directs our efforts, and even alters mood.’ Fels argues that the times we are happiest and most engaged in our work are the times when we are most valued and validated – and alas for women, cultural validation only comes in the form of praise for selflessness, for stepping down, shutting up, putting their desires away and promoting others.

Honestly? I agree. There is so much of my own experience that resonantes here. Fels notes that: ‘When girls persist in being high achievers, they are subtly penalised by their teachers. They actually receive less attention from their teachers than any of the other student types.’ Yup, that was my experience at school. And the times I flew high and found my work easy and fulfilling were mostly during my graduate days when I had two mentors around me who encouraged me a great deal. When I began working for the university, there was no recognition to be had. In thirteen years teaching, I had two appraisals and only one sentence of praise which yes, I remember to this day (the then Senior Tutor said ‘no one can please all the people all the time, but you get pretty close to it’). The constant lack of recognition undoubtedly contributed to chronic fatigue – I paid out so much energy, and had so little re-energising sense of doing well in return. And I did indeed feel guilty and wrong for wanting recognition at all. Not least because I was aware that it’s so hard to come by. For instance, here’s an intriguing study from Fels’ book:

Two groups of people were asked to evaluate particular items, such as articles, paintings, resumes and the like. The names attached to the items given each group of evaluators were clearly either male or female, but reversed for each group – that is, what one group believed was originated by a man, the other believed was originated by a woman. Regardless of the items, when they were ascribed to a man, they were rated higher than when they were ascribed to a woman. In all of these studies, women evaluators were as likely as men to downgrade those items ascribed to women.’

Essentially, it’s the premise of Hustvedt’s book. Which of course puts women in a complicated position. What else IS there to do but try and find consolation in the practice of whatever work we do, in the full awareness that it’s the only reward we’re likely to get? Another interesting book that’s been holding my attention lately is Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Approval and acceptance are hugely important, they agree, but to jump on the bandwagon and produce commercially successful art is often to lose your identity as an artist, whilst standing out for your own vision is always fraught with inevitable misunderstandings: ‘The problem is not absolute but temporal: by the time your reward arrives, you may not be around to collect it. Ask Schubert.’ It’s a great little book, actually, that has made me laugh a lot, and has some pithy advice.

The lesson here is simply that courting approval, even that of peers, puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Worse yet, the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the one issue that really counts – namely, whether or not you’re making progress in your work. They’re in a good position to comment on how they’re moved (or challenged or entertained) by the finished product, but have little knowledge or interest in your process.’

Sensible words, but I doubt they would have helped Harriet Burden. Ambition is like a virus, I don’t think you can just will it away, but it is also a very high-risk strategy, particularly for women and I can’t see that changing any time soon.